A version of this column first ran in the Roane County (WV) Reporter and Times Record as part of a gardening series. Support local journalism! Subscribe to your local newspaper. This is one of a series of blogs for new gardeners. Start reading the whole series here: Part 1.
I’m doing this column now because one of the key tasks in the orchard is pruning, and I do most of that in February. For most plants, this is the best time—after the worst of winter is over but before the plants break dormancy. Some ornamental trees, shrubs and vines benefit from pruning as well. But I’m not actually going to say much about pruning because it’s too big a subject; there is plenty of advice online or in books about it, usually accompanied by illustrations, which are helpful if not vital.
The next main task in the orchard is fertilizing, followed by mulching. I do this in April and use manure. It goes as far out as the drip line of the tree, but neither the fertilizer, nor the mulch that goes on top of the fertilizer, should reach inward right to the trunk of the tree—that should be exposed to air and to your eyes, to discourage voles from chewing on the trunk. They’re bad for this, especially in winter. A visible trunk base on peaches might allow you to spot the work of a borer in time to reach in with a wire and murder the little—uh, the grub. I put pea gravel around the trunk, extending outward maybe a foot. This is somewhat helpful in suppressing weeds, without hiding the area around the trunk.
The books these days say you should not fertilize a newly planted tree, but beginning the second year I’ll use plenty to speed growth. An older tree may no longer be growing, but has a larger area over which to spread fertilizer. If you know your soil to be quite acidic, you might scatter some wood ashes or lime as well.
Leaves and bark make good mulch for trees—no need to shred the leaves for this. But in my case, because I have free range chickens, there are also stones involved. If I just covered the area up to the drip line of a tree with leaves, within a week my chickens will have scattered the leaves in all directions. So I put stones, or sometimes hunks of half rotten logs or old lumber or bark, down on top of the mulch so the chickens can’t scatter it—but rain can still get in, between the stones.
The bloom is a very important time in the orchard, the time that primarily determines how good a crop of fruit you’ll get, if any. Most fruit trees bloom during the season when frost is still a possibility. Sometimes an earlier bloomer manages to set fruit and a later one gets hit (because already-set fruit can tolerate slightly lower temperatures than not-yet-fertilized flowers). Our area is particularly prone to unpredictable spring frost. Nonetheless, a good site can produce apples and pears more years than not, and peaches and cherries probably half the time. Apricots? Probably not.
There is little you can do to protect fruit tree blooms, but here I will reiterate what constitutes a good site: of course it should have full sun, as near as possible, and decent quality, well drained soil (the quality of the soil a foot or two down matters more than it does in a vegetable garden). But for avoiding frost damage, the ideal is a gently sloping site with open ground below it, so that cold air can drain on past your orchard; cold air moves downhill on a cold, clear spring night. Higher ground is also less frost prone. Orientation matters—north-facing is ideal as it will take longer to warm up in spring and thus the trees will bloom a little later. A south-facing site is also more prone to bark injury in winter, when a sunny day can cause tree bark to warm too much, followed by a cold night. West-facing is likely better than east facing, because it’s when the sun hits frozen plant tissue that the damage occurs. If the frozen buds or leaves can thaw before the sun hits they may escape injury. My orchard slopes to the east but there are tall enough trees in the gully below to keep the early morning sun off the orchard.
In June there is the task of thinning—if the trees set fruit. Some question the necessity, or are loathe to pick “perfectly good fruit” only to compost it. Here’s why you should: an apple has ten seeds. Ripening the seeds actually takes more energy from the tree than ripening the larger amount of flesh on the apple. So if you have a cluster of five golf ball size apples in June, and they’re left to ripen in September, you’ll get five small apples, with fifty seeds. If you pluck four of them the tree only has to mature ten seeds, and will make nice big fruits—which will also get better air flow and less disease spread, and the tree will be lined up for a better crop the following year. Peaches should be five inches apart when you’re done. But cherries and pears don’t need thinning. Don’t leave plucked fruit under the tree—it could harbor disease or bugs. I throw some of my little green apples into my blueberry bed, as they are quite acidic and blueberries like life to be sour. Note that trees are somewhat self-thinning—this is the “June drop” so wait for that to do your own thinning.
Lastly, before harvest you could spray poisons to get rid of the plethora of insects and fungal and other disease organisms, but I have no advice on that except—don’t. Much of the spraying is done near bloom time, so you risk poisoning your pollinators—and I am not willing to assume that all the poison washes harmlessly away before harvest time. One thing an organic grower can do to reduce the many disease and insect problems, is to choose disease resistant varieties. For this reason I chose Goldrush, Enterprise and Priscilla apples, Potomac and Blake’s Pride pears and a PF19—007 peach (hey, I didn’t name it). I also have a Red Gem and Sweet Scarlet goumis, which are bushes related to the evil invasive Russian and autumn olives—only not invasive, and with bigger, sweeter fruit. These fix nitrogen and the fruit is loaded with antioxidants. They’re also reliable, with no insect or disease issues—and squirrels have been stealing all my tree fruit, a problem I haven’t solved yet, but so far they haven’t gotten into the goumi bushes. My strawberries, raspberries and blackberries are in fenced garden space, and the blueberry patch has a strong fence all around, so I haven’t lost any of those to the hairy bandits. One-inch-mesh poultry netting will keep birds off your blueberries.
Read the rest: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12. Part 13. Part 14. Part 15. Part 16. Part 17. Part 18. Part 19. Part 20. Part 21. Part 22. Part 23. Part 24. Part 25. Part 26. Part 27. Part 28. Part 29. Part 30. Part 31. Part 32. Part 33. Part 34. Part 35. Part 36. Part 37. Part 38. Part 39.